Western Sahara is a territory of northwestern Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The largest city, and capital, is El Aaiún (Laâyoune), which is home to over half of the population of the territory. Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since the 1960s when it was a Spanish colony.
The Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front independence movement (and government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR) dispute control of the territory. Since a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in 1991, most of the territory has been controlled by Morocco, with the remainder under the control of Polisario/SADR. Internationally, the major powers such as the United States and the UK have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side’s claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, from largely minor states. Polisario has won formal recognition for SADR from roughly 45 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won formal recognition for its position from 25 states, as well as the membership of the Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends and levels of peace within the territory.
As you can see in the picture above, Laayoune is literally a city in the middle of the desert with nothing else around it for a thousand miles. As you fly into the airport as we did, during the day from the Canary Islands, you see the desert and then all you see is sand for miles until finally a little city just appears with nothing around it. It’s very strange. Landing in the Western Sahara and going through customs was very weird as well. They asked what we were doing here and we said tourism. They were like, really? Nobody comes here for that. I guess they have never met anyone trying to set a record for going to all countries and territories on Earth, haha.
Today the city is obviously still surrounded by sand and is dominated by the presence of the United Nations. Our hotel was nearly full with UN people there to administer and keep the peace in the territory. Although still disputed there has been relative peace since the 1991 cease fire and Mauritania has basically given up their claims with the Saharawi People left out in the cold but now fighting for their own republic in nearby Algeria.
For me, the shocking thing about Laayoune was how clean it was. As an African veteran, I know how dirty and nasty some of these places can be but I was shocked as to how clean and orderly everything was. It was very pleasant to be in the city and we had a nice dinner at a French Restaurant.
Walking around the city is really interesting because you don’t know exactly what to make of it. There is a main square that is completely empty and there really isn’t that much to do here in general. There are bored youngsters just hanging out and the typical muslim men relaxing at the cafes while the women work at home or in the shop. It’s really hard to pinpoint how you feel when you are there but the atmosphere alone is worth a visit. I had never seen anything like it and the UN presence is very strange, it’s kind of what I imagine Khartoum or Port Au Prince to be like nowadays with all the peacekeepers.